Monday Nov. 23, 2015

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Say It

Say that it is the continuous life
you desire, that one day might stretch into
the next without a seam, without seeming
to move one minute away from the past
or that in passing through whatever comes

you keep coming to the faces you love,
never leaving them entirely behind.

Say that it is simply a wish to waste
time forever, lingering with the friends
you’ve gathered together, a gradual
illumination traveling the spine,
eyes brimming with the moment that is now.

Say that it is the impulse of the soul
to endure forever. Say it again.

“Say It” by Joyce Sutphen from Modern Love & Other Myths. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this date in the year 534 B.C.E., Thespis reportedly became the first Western actor to portray a character onstage. Details are sketchy, but Aristotle wrote that Thespis, a Greek poet from Icaria, donned a mask and took on the persona of Dionysus, god of fertility, wine, and the theater. Up to this point, Greek theater mostly consisted of choruses singing songs about Greek myths. Thespis was the first one to actually pretend to be someone else, speaking dialogue from the point of view of that character.

On this day in 1936, Life magazine began publication, the first American magazine to make its name on the strength of its photojournalism. The cover of the first issue was a Margaret Bourke-White photo of Fort Peck Dam, which the Army Corps of Engineers was building on the Missouri River in Montana. Founder Henry R. Luce described the mission of the magazine as follows: “To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud ... to see and to take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed.”

It was on this day in 1903 that the opera singer Enrico Caruso made his American debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, appearing in "Rigoletto." Caruso made it there from a childhood in the slums of Naples. His auto-mechanic father had tried to get him to work in a factory, but he'd run away from home at 16 and supported himself singing at weddings and funerals. Caruso began his career as an opera singer in 1894, at an amateur opera house, but he slowly built up a reputation throughout Europe and around the world.

By 1903, there was a lot of anticipation for his American debut, and most critics agreed that he did a good job. But over the course of that first opera season, Caruso began to relax and he sang better and better with each performance. By the end of the season, audiences were going into hysterics. After one of his last performances of the season, the audience members began yelling, stamping, and screaming his name. One woman jumped up on stage as Caruso came out for a bow. She tore a button from his coat and immediately burst into tears.

Less than three months after his Metropolitan debut, Caruso made some recordings for the Victor Company, and his voice had a quality that shone through all the static in those early recordings, which helped transform the phonograph from a curiosity into a household item — and Caruso the first vocal recording star.

Caruso said his success could be attributed to six things: "A big chest, a big mouth, 90 percent memory, 10 percent intelligence, lots of hard work, and something in the heart."

It’s the birthday of Ishmael Beah (books by this author) born in the fishing town of Mattru Jong, Sierra Leone, (1980). He’s the author of the book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (2007), published when he was 26 years old.

When Beah was 12, Sierra Leone was in the midst of a brutal civil war, but his town seemed far removed from it, and he was busy memorizing Shakespeare and performing in a dance and rap ensemble. Then the rebel army came into his town and started shooting. His parents and brothers were killed. He recounted: “I ran away, along paths and roads that were littered with dead bodies, some mutilated in ways so horrible that looking at them left a permanent scar on my memory. I ran for days, weeks and months, and I couldn’t believe that the simple and precious world I had known, where nights were celebrated with storytelling and dancing and mornings greeted with the singing of birds and cock crows, was now a place where only guns spoke and sometimes it seemed even the sun hesitated to shine.”

The Sierra Leone government army conscripted him; by the time he was 13 he was carrying an AK-47 and constantly high on drugs — speed pills and also “brown-brown,” a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder that the child soldiers were given to sniff. For two years, he fought constantly in bloody battles.

Then, there came a directive to disarm child soldiers, and he was chosen by the army to go to a UNICEF-sponsored rehabilitation center, where he spent eight months.

He got in touch with a woman in New York who worked for an NGO, whom he’d met when he’d been invited to speak at a UN conference earlier. He asked her if he could live with her. She agreed and sent him some money and clothes. He narrowly escaped from Sierra Leone into Guinea, and then went on to New York, where the Brooklyn Jewish woman officially adopted him. He finished high school in New York, graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio with a political science degree in 2004, and wrote his memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.

It’s the birthday of poet and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht (books by this author) born in Glen Cove, New York (1965). Hecht’s first poetry book, The Next Ancient World (2001), won a “First Book Award” from the Poetry Society of America. In the collection, she writes a short poem, “History,” about Eve in the Garden of Eden: “the only soul in all of time / to never have to wait for love,” who must still have had some sleepless nights “and wished to trade-in all of Eden / to have but been a child.” She writes, “In fact, I gather that is why she leapt and fell from grace, / that she might have a story of herself to tell / in some other place.”

She’s also a scholar of intellectual history — she has a Ph.D. from Columbia in the History of Science and has published several philosophy books, including Doubt: A History (about questions of faith and religion) The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism and Anthropology, and, her most recent, Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It (2013).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®