Wednesday Dec. 17, 2014

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Winter Grace

If you have seen the snow
under the lamppost
piled up like a white beaver hat on the picnic table
or somewhere slowly falling
into the brook
to be swallowed by water,
then you have seen beauty
and know it for its transience.
And if you have gone out in the snow
for only the pleasure
of walking barely protected
from the galaxies,
the flakes settling on your parka
like the dust from just-born stars,
the cold waking you
as if from long sleeping,
then you can understand
how, more often than not,
truth is found in silence,
how the natural world comes to you
if you go out to meet it,
its icy ditches filled with dead weeds,
its vacant birdhouses, and dens
full of the sleeping.
But this is the slowed-down season
held fast by darkness
and if no one comes to keep you company
then keep watch over your own solitude.
In that stillness, you will learn
with your whole body
the significance of cold
and the night,
which is otherwise always eluding you.

"Winter Grace" by Patricia Fargnoli, from Winter. © Hobblebush Books, 2013. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

It’s the birthday of poet John Greenleaf Whittier (books by this author), born in Haverhill, Massachusetts (1807). He grew up in a Quaker farming family. When he was a teenager, his sister sent one of his poems to a local paper, and it was accepted for publication by an enthusiastic editor named William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison encouraged the young man to continue writing.

Whittier moved to Boston and then Hartford, working as a journalist and editor, and briefly pursued politics. At the age of 25, he had a nervous breakdown and went home to the family farm to recuperate. Soon he received a letter from Garrison, who by this time had become a famous abolitionist. Garrison wrote: “Whittier, enlist! — Your talents, zeal, influence — all are needed.” Whittier did enlist, and he spent decades in the service of the abolitionist cause. He gave speeches, met with legislators, and wrote pamphlets, poems, and essays. His opinions did not make him popular — he was even stoned by a mob once while trying to retrieve his papers from his office.

After the Civil War ended, Whittier continued to write, turning his focus to less controversial topics like rural life, family, and nature. He published a long book-length poem called Snow-Bound (1866), in which a New England family sit around a fire telling stories while they are stuck inside for three days during a blizzard. He wrote it as a personal poem for his niece, but then mentioned it to his publisher — he pitched it as “a homely picture of old New England homes.” To his surprise, Snow-Bound was a huge success, selling 20,000 copies in its first few months and earning Whittier $10,000.

He wrote:
“When the second morning shone,
We looked upon a world unknown,
On nothing we could call our own.
Around the glistening wonder bent
The blue walls of the firmament,
No cloud above, no earth below, —
A universe of sky and snow!”

It was on this day in 1892 that The Nutcracker ballet premiered at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. The ballet was based on a story by Alexandre Dumas, which in turn was based on The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, a much darker story by E.T.A. Hoffman. The score for the ballet was composed by Peter Tchaikovsky. The production was a huge failure with both critics and audience. Tchaikovsky died less than a year later, and had no idea that The Nutcracker would become a classic — many people consider it the most popular ballet in the world.

It’s the birthday of writer Erskine Caldwell (books by this author), born in Moreland, Georgia (1903). His father was an itinerant Presbyterian preacher, and Caldwell lived in a series of poor rural communities in the South. He said: “I could not become accustomed to the sight of children’s stomachs bloated from hunger and seeing the ill and aged too weak to walk to the fields to search for something to eat. In the evenings I wrote about what I had seen during the day, but nothing I put down on paper succeeded in conveying the full meaning of poverty and hopelessness and degradation as I had observed it.”

Caldwell published his two most famous books back to back: Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933). Both were stories of destitute Southern workers — Tobacco Road was about sharecroppers, God’s Little Acre about mill workers. Both books were sexually explicit and full of profanity, and were widely condemned and banned across the South. Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone With the Wind, criticized Caldwell (and William Faulkner) for selling a vision of the South that Northerners wanted to read. God’s Little Acre was banned in Boston, and the Georgia Literary Commission recommended that anyone caught reading it be sent to jail, but it became one of the best-selling books of the 20th century. Caldwell’s books have sold more than 80 million copies.

His other books include We are the Living (1933); You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), with his second wife, Life photographer Margaret Bourke-White; A Place Called Estherville (1949), and With All My Might (1987).

On this day in 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright had their first successful flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The brothers picked Kitty Hawk because it was full of sand dunes that would cushion crash landings and it had high winds to help get the plane off the ground. But living there was almost unbearable. They endured sandstorms, coastal rains, and swarms of insects during the day. And at night, the wind was so bad that the brothers had to get out and hold on to their tent to keep it from blowing away.

In 1900, Orville and Wilbur started out with a kite controlled from the ground, and later took turns manning it in the air. Their father forbade them from flying together, to ensure that one brother could continue the experiments in the event of a fatal crash. When Wilbur stepped into the controls in October, he was unprepared for the sensation of flying. The plane was unpredictable, he couldn’t plan out his moves, and he relied purely on instinct to adjust the plane up and down. Within a few moments he overcompensated, nearly flipped the glider over and shouted to his brother, “Let me down!” Suffering months of spin-outs, broken struts, blackened eyes, and crash landings, the brothers left Kitty Hawk early. On the train back, Wilbur told his brother, “Not within a thousand years will man ever fly.”

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