This was a day when nothing happened,
the children went off to school
remembering their books, lunches, gloves.
All morning, the baby and I built block stacks
in the squares of light on the floor.
And lunch blended into naptime,
I cleaned out kitchen cupboards,
one of those jobs that never gets done,
then sat in a circle of sunlight
and drank ginger tea,
watched the birds at the feeder
jostle over lunch’s little scraps.
A pheasant strutted from the hedgerow,
preened and flashed his jeweled head.
Now a chicken roasts in the pan,
and the children return,
the murmur of their stories dappling the air.
I peel carrots and potatoes without paring my thumb.
We listen together for your wheels on the drive.
Grace before bread.
And at the table, actual conversation,
no bickering or pokes.
And then, the drift into homework.
The baby goes to his cars, drives them
along the sofa’s ridges and hills.
Leaning by the counter, we steal a long slow kiss,
tasting of coffee and cream.
The chicken’s diminished to skin and skeleton,
the moon to a comma, a sliver of white,
but this has been a day of grace
in the dead of winter,
the hard cold knuckle of the year,
a day that unwrapped itself
like an unexpected gift,
and the stars turn on,
into the winter night.
“Ordinary Life” by Barbara Crooker from Selected Poems. © Future Cycle Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It's the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, born in Eisenach, Germany (1685). He came from a family that had produced musicians for seven generations. Both his parents had died by the time he was 10, so he was taken in by his older brother, a professional organist who taught him to play a variety of keyboard instruments. He attended the local music school, where he sang in the boys' choir, and by the time he was 18 he got his first job as a church organist.
But he often got in trouble for wandering off to nearby towns so that he could hear the performances of other famous organ players. He had a short temper, and once got into a swordfight after calling one of the players in his orchestra a "nanny-goat bassoonist." Members of his congregation were annoyed by his habit of improvising while playing hymns, which made it difficult for people to sing along.
He eventually left his first job and spent several years traveling around Germany, giving performances and winning competitions. Bach spent several years as the court organist at Weimar. When he decided he wasn't happy and tried to resign, the Duke had him thrown into prison for four weeks. He eventually moved to Leipzig, where he worked as the city's director of church music for the rest of his life, and where he composed most of his major works.
Bach earned a decent living in Leipzig, but he had a grueling workload. He had to write a cantata every month, so to get ahead of the deadlines, he wrote one every week for the first two years. In addition to serving as organist and musical director at church services, he had to teach a boys' class in Latin and music, and he was frustrated by the undisciplined students and inexperienced musicians.
Despite all his difficulties, he managed to compose some great works of music, including The Passion According to St. John (1723), The Passion According to St. Matthew (1729), Mass in B minor (1733), and the Goldberg Variations (1742). He was composing baroque music just as baroque music was going out of style, and people considered him hopelessly old-fashioned. When he died in 1750, he was hailed as a great virtuoso on the organ but not a great composer.
In 1829, the composer Felix Mendelssohn staged a revival performance of The Passion According to St. Matthew, and Bach finally began to be appreciated. Later, Robert Schumann helped to publish Bach's complete works, and people realized that even the stylistic exercises he wrote for his music students were masterpieces.
Johann Sebastian Bach said, "Music ... should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the recreation of the soul; where this is not kept in mind there is no true music, but only an infernal clamor and ranting."
And, "There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself."
It's the birthday of the man who said: "Deprivation often makes a writer." That's Ved Mehta (books by this author), born in Lahore, India (now Pakistan) in 1934. When he was four years old, he contracted a form of meningitis that caused him to go blind. He said: "In India, one of the poorest countries the world has ever known, the lot of the blind was to beg with a walking stick in one hand and an alms bowl in the other. Hindus consider blindness a punishment for sins committed in a previous incarnation." But his father was a doctor who thought that his son should have the same opportunities as everyone else, so he sent him to schools that served blind people. One of these was a school for soldiers who had been recently blinded during World War II, and there, Mehta learned to type. With this new skill, he sent letters to every school he could find in England and the United States, and the Arkansas School for the Blind accepted him.
So he left India at the age of 15, and he ended up getting scholarships and attending Pomona, Oxford, and Harvard. While he was at Harvard, someone offered to introduce him to William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker. Mehta wasn't really sure what The New Yorker was but he decided to have tea with Shawn, who ended up inviting the 25-year-old to write an article for the magazine. Mehta gave up his fellowship at Harvard to become a staff writer for The New Yorker, where he stayed for almost 35 years.
From the beginning, he was enamored of Shawn, and years later, after his mentor's death, he published Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker (1998), a memoir of his years there. In it, he wrote about Shawn: "I fell completely under the spell of his manner — kind, courtly, respectful, and patient. The editing process was arduous and time-consuming, since there was hardly a paragraph that was not touched. Yet he made our work, which could so easily have degenerated into a power play, intensely pleasurable. All the while, I felt that he was sensitizing me to the force and the importance of each word — to its weight, tone, and texture — and was teaching me new ways not only of writing but also of thinking, feeling, and speaking."
Ved Mehta is the author of many books, including Face to Face (1957), Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles (1977), and most recently, All For Love (2002), a memoir of sorts about his love affairs with four different women.
He said, "I didn't want to be a blind writer. I wanted to be a writer who is blind."
It's the birthday of a writer who loved the suburbs, Phyllis McGinley (books by this author), born in Ontario, Oregon (1905). In "Suburbia, To Thee I Sing," she wrote: "Deluded people that we are, we do not realize how mediocre it all seems. We will eat our undistinguished meal, probably without even a cocktail to enliven it. We will drink our coffee at the table, not carry it into the living room. If a husband changes for dinner here it is into old trousers and more comfortable shoes. The children will then go through the childhood routine — complain about their homework, grumble about going to bed, and finally accomplish both ordeals. Perhaps later the Gerard Joneses will drop in. We will talk a great deal of unimportant chatter and compare notes on food prices; will discuss the headlines and disagree. We will all have one highball and the Joneses will leave early. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow the pattern will be repeated. This is Suburbia. But I think that someday people will look back on our Spruce Manor way of life with nostalgia and respect. In a world of terrible extremes it will stand out as the important medium. Suburbia, of thee I sing!"