No one’s remembered much longer than a rock
is remembered beside the road
If he’s lucky or
Some tune or harsh word
uttered in childhood or back in the day.
Still how nice to imagine some kid someday
picking that rock up and holding it in his hand
Briefly before he chucks it
Deep in the woods in a sunny spot in the tall grass.
“It’s Sweet to Be Remembered” by Charles Wright from Sestets. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is Memorial Day. It became a holiday after the Civil War, to honor the Union and Confederate soldiers who had died in battle, and after World War I it was extended to honor all United States soldiers who died in any war. Union general John Logan chose the 30th specifically because it was not the anniversary of any battle. But in 1968, Congress's Uniform Holidays Act severed the link between Memorial Day and the original date, changing it instead to "the last Monday in May" to allow for a three-day weekend. Some opposed the switch, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye; they believe people have lost sight of the original meaning of the holiday, a day for reconciliation and honor. It has lately become a holiday for families to remember anyone they have lost (veteran or otherwise), to lay flowers at gravesites, and, in later years, barbecue, shop, and watch the Indianapolis 500. For those unable to travel to the graves of their loved ones, there are websites like FindAGrave.com, where one can create a cyber-monument and leave a "virtual" note or bouquet.
Some choose to visit the grave of a favorite author. Ernest Hemingway (books by this author) served in the Red Cross during World War I and his grave, in the Municipal Cemetery, is one of the main tourist attractions of Ketchum, Idaho, where he was living at the time of his suicide in 1961. Fans leave bottles of liquor, and pennies, as though Papa could grant their wishes.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (books by this author) once wrote: "I wouldn't mind a bit if in a few years Zelda and I could snuggle up together under a stone in some graveyard. That is really a happy thought, and not melancholy at all." He's buried in Rockville, Maryland, at St. Mary's Cemetery. As a nonpracticing Catholic, he was originally denied burial in the church graveyard, but his daughter, Scottie, appealed the diocese's decision, and his — and Zelda's — remains were moved from Rockville Union Cemetery in 1975. Their graves are occasionally adorned with packs of cigarettes, martini glasses, and gin bottles alongside the flowers.
John Keats (books by this author) was buried in Rome, and he wrote his own epitaph as he lay dying of tuberculosis. It reads, "Here lies One Whose Name was Writ on Water," and he wanted that line to be the only engraving on his nameless stone. He was disheartened by harsh criticism of his "Endymion," or so his friends Joseph Severn and Charles Brown believed, and so they added the following to his monument: "This Grave contains all that was mortal of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone." Oscar Wilde was so taken with Keats and his final resting place that he wrote an essay — "The Tomb of Keats" — and a sonnet — "The Grave of Keats" — about it. "Thy name was writ in water — it shall stand: And tears like mine will keep thy memory green," wrote Wilde.
Today is the birthday of philosopher, poet, and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (books by this author). He was born in Boston in 1803, and his father's unmarried sister, Mary Moody Emerson, was a great influence on him. She wasn't formally educated, but she was sharp, and she was widely read. She introduced young Waldo, as he was called, to a wide variety of philosophies and spiritual beliefs, including the Hindu scriptures that he would return to in later years, and it was from her that he got many of the aphorisms he passed on to his children, like "Always do what you are afraid to do," and "Despise trifles," and "Oh, blessed, blessed poverty." He entered Harvard at 14, and he began keeping journals, which he called his "savings bank"; when he became friends with Thoreau in 1837, he suggested that Thoreau, too, might benefit from keeping a journal.
In his book Nature (1836), Emerson first introduced the concept of Transcendentalism — the idea that spiritual truth could be gained by intuition rather than by established doctrine or text — and he would become a leader of that movement. He was a popular public speaker, and gave more than 1,500 speeches in his lifetime.
From the essay "The Over-Soul" (1841):
"The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character, and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty. We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul. Only by the vision of that Wisdom can the horoscope of the ages be read, and by falling back on our better thoughts, by yielding to the spirit of prophecy which is innate in every man, we can know what it saith."