How far friends are! They forget you,
most days. They have to, I know; but still,
it’s lonely just being far and a friend.
I put my hand out—this chair, this table—
So near: touch, that’s how to live.
Call up a friend? All right, but the phone
itself is what loves you, warm on your ear,
on your hand. Or, you lift a pen
to write—it’s not that far person
but this familiar pen that comforts.
Near things: Friend, here’s my hand.
“Friends” by William Stafford from The Way It Is. © Graywolf Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of Martin Luther (books by this author), born in Eisleben, Saxony, in what is now Germany (1483). He was a theologian, a prolific writer, and a religious reformer that sparked the Protestant Reformation.
He was also a devoted husband who once wrote: “There is no more lovely, friendly, and charming relationship, communion, or company than a good marriage.” Luther met Katharina von Bora in 1523, when she came under his protection in Wittenberg. She was a former nun who had escaped her Cistercian cloister by hiding in a grocer’s covered wagon. The Reformation was in its infancy, and people were still shocked when former nuns, monks, and priests got married. Many of Luther’s friends were scandalized when he told them he was thinking of marrying von Bora, but eventually he decided that his marriage would “please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh and the devil to weep.”
The newlyweds moved into a former monastery that was called “the Black Cloister.” Kate had the building painted white, and remodeled it to allow for more spacious rooms. She also took over the family finances. Luther made a relatively modest income, so she helped out by brewing beer and raising cows, chickens, geese, pigs, and bees. To supplement their income, she took in boarders. She also saw to it that Luther took care of himself, making sure he ate regularly and dressed properly.
Together they had six children of their own, and also at one point took in Luther’s six nephews and nieces. By all accounts, their home was a lively and happy place. They played lawn bowling together, made music and sang, and often hosted Luther’s students and colleagues for dinner.
It was on this day in 1956 that American jazz singer Billie Holiday performed a legendary concert at Carnegie Hall after a three-year absence. Holiday was ill and dehydrated; she’d spent the past few years struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction and had even been placed under arrest while in bed. But when she appeared in a white evening gown, with her trademark white gardenias in her hair, the audience was transfixed. Gilbert Millstein, a writer for the New York Times, read passages from her new autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, between songs. The concert was billed as The Songs and Story of Miss Billie Holiday.
Holiday performed 24 songs, including “Body and Soul” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” accompanied by jazzman Coleman Hawkins and the Chico Hamilton Quintet. You could buy tickets at Flap’s Record Shop for $4.00; those were the best seats.
It was on this day in 1969 that the children’s television program Sesame Street first aired on PBS. The show got its name from the famous command in The Arabian Nights, “Open, Sesame!” The show’s producers thought the word “sesame” would suggest adventure and excitement.
Sesame Street was the brainchild of Joan Ganz Cooney, who produced documentaries for public television. In the late 1960s, the average American preschooler was watching 27 hours of television a week, much of it confusing and violent. Cooney knew that television could be used for educational purposes, and that underprivileged kids needed help before entering kindergarten, so she hit on the idea of a free, fun-filled educational television show that would teach preschoolers the alphabet and how to count.
Sesame Street was set in a fictional New York City neighborhood and populated by kind adults and an assortment of ragtag creatures known as “Muppets,” invented by puppeteer Jim Henson. At first, the humans got more screen time, but early tests showed that kids paid more attention to the show when the Muppets appeared, and this is how generations of kids came to know and love characters like Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and Kermit the Frog. Sesame Street was an immediate hit, and by 1979, 9 million American kids under the age of six were watching every day.
It’s the birthday of the poet Vachel Lindsay (books by this author), born in Springfield, Illinois (1879). His parents wanted him to become a doctor, but he dropped out of medical school after three years and tried to make a living drawing pictures and writing poetry. After struggling for several years, and working for a time in the toy department of Marshall Field’s, he decided to walk across the United States, trading his poems and pictures for food and shelter along the way. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as he thought it would be. He said, “No one cared for my pictures, no one cared for my verse, and I turned beggar in sheer desperation ... [but] I was entirely prepared to die for my work, if necessary, by the side of the road, and was almost at the point of it at times.” In 1913, Poetry magazine published Lindsay’s poem “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” and it was a big hit. He went on to write many collections of poetry for adults and children, including The Tree of the Laughing Bells (1905) and Every Soul Is a Circus (1929).