Monday Oct. 31, 2016

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Toward the Solstice

We burned our leaves on the bluest October day,
the sun still warm on our backs,
frost just a ghost in the shrubbery.
We raked the leaves into shifting piles on the lawn,
scooped them into deep round baskets
and spilled them in the street against the curb.
The vein of fire, unseen at first in diamond light,
whispered through oak leaves brown as butcher paper,
and maple still flushed with color like maps
torn from The Book of Knowledge.
We were letting go of October, relinquishing color,
readying ourselves for streets lacquered with ice,
the town closed like a walnut, locked inside the cold.

“Toward the Solstice” by Mark Perlberg from The Impossible Toystore. © Louisiana State University Press, 2000. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween. It’s believed to originate in the Celtic festival of Samhain, a pre-Christian festival held around November 1 to mark the end of summer and the beginning of winter. It was the biggest holiday of the Celtic year: a combination of harvest festival, New Year’s Eve, and community meeting. Animals were brought in from the pasture and made secure for the coming winter, and some of them were slaughtered to provide salted meat for the winter. It was also a time of year when the veil between living and dead was particularly porous, so the spirits of the dearly departed were more easily able to return to their earthly homes. And it meant that other otherworldly creatures — like fairies, leprechauns, and other tricksters — were more likely to be among us. But even though ghosties and ghoulies wandered among the living during Samhain, the supernatural wasn’t the main focus of the holiday the way it is for Halloween.

As the Christian Church grew, Samhain blended with a Christian holiday known as All Saints’ Day, All Hallows’ Day, or Hallowmas, which was originally observed in May but later moved to November 1. It was a time for believers to honor and remember those who had passed on to heaven. This blending was not coincidental. Early Christian leaders told their missionaries that if they wanted to convert pagans to Christianity, they shouldn’t waste time on trying to suppress their rituals and practices, but rather they should consecrate those practices to Christ and incorporate them wherever possible. This had the effect of establishing Christianity among the pagans — but it also preserved many of the pagan practices instead of quashing them. So Samhain and All Saints’ Day rituals influenced each other and eventually merged, and that is when we begin to see the traditions that we associate with Halloween today.

One such tradition was the practice of “souling,” common in Britain and Ireland in the Middle Ages. Poor people would go door to door on Hallowmas and offer to pray for the souls of the family’s dead relatives, in exchange for an offering of food. It mingled with the practice of “mumming”: dressing up in costumes and performing wacky antics in exchange for food and drink, and eventually trick-or-treating became a traditional part of Halloween.

The Lincoln Highway was dedicated on this date in 1913. It was the first automobile road to traverse the entire continental United States. The man behind the plan was Carl Fisher. No stranger to automobile-friendly surfaces, he had recently enjoyed great acclaim as a result of his Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which hosted the new Indianapolis 500 race on its brick-paved track. He envisioned a gravel road that would run from coast to coast, from California to New York. He called it the Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway, and the price tag was reasonable even by 1912 standards: $10 million. Fisher planned to fund his project by soliciting contributions from automakers, but Henry Ford refused to get on board. He believed that the people should pay for the public roads, and the public would never get used to the idea of paying for roads if there was a hint that the business community would do it for them. It was Henry Joy, the president of the Packard Motor Company, who came up with the idea of calling it the Lincoln Highway and asking Congress for the money. Formally dedicated in 1913, and running from New York City’s Times Square to San Francisco’s Lincoln Park, it was the first national memorial to Abraham Lincoln, predating Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial by nine years.

Today is the birthday of American journalist and writer Susan Orlean (books by this author), born in Cleveland, Ohio (1955), who spent two years writing a book about a group of orchid poachers in South Florida. That book, The Orchid Thief (1998), became an international best-seller and was later made into a film starring Meryl Streep (2002).

Orlean’s first book was Saturday Night (1990), a nonfiction account of how people across America spent their Saturday nights. Her other books include The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People (2001) and Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend (2011), about the legendary Hollywood German shepherd. When she was a child, Orlean’s grandfather kept a Rin Tin Tin figurine on his desk and she ached to play with it, and to own a German shepherd of her own. Her latest book is The Floral Ghost (2016), about the Flower District in Manhattan.

It’s the birthday of the poet John Keats (books by this author), born on this day in Finsbury Pavement, near London, in 1795. His father was a stable keeper, but he died when Keats was eight years old, and when he was a teenager his mother died of tuberculosis, which in those days was called consumption. It’s the disease that would later kill his brother Tom and eventually Keats himself.

Keats hadn’t been much of a reader before his mother’s death, but now he started to read all the time, especially old classics and poetry like Spenser’s Faerie Queene. He spent a few years as an apprentice in a hospital, and even worked as a surgeon, but his heart wasn’t in medicine, so he quit and focused on poetry. He published his first book, Poems, in 1817, but it got bad reviews and didn’t sell well. Then Keats realized he was suffering from TB, so he moved to a friend’s house in the country. And there he lived next door to a beautiful and fashionable young woman named Fanny Brawne, and he fell in love with her. In love, knowing he was sick, in just a few months he wrote most of the poems that he’s famous for, including “To Psyche,” “To a Nightingale,” and “On a Grecian Urn.”

But his tuberculosis was getting worse, and his doctor told him to leave England and go to Italy instead, which he did, and he died in Rome in 1821, just after a crushing review was published about his epic poem Endymion. He asked that his name not be put on his tombstone, only the words “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

He was just 25 years old when he died, and he had published only 54 poems. Endymion, the poem that critics had scorned, opens with what has become a very famous line in English literature: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.”

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