May 10, 2004
Poem: "Spring Lemonade," by
Tony Hoagland, from What Narcissism Means to Me. © Graywolf Press. Reprinted with permission.
In late April they spread manure on the fields
the same week the lilac hedges bloom,
so the nose gets one of those symphonic challenges
that require you to stand out on the porch and breathe.
The earth goes around a corner, the dresser drawers slide out
and naturally, we change our clothes,
putting the long underwear away,
taking out the short-sleeve shirts,
trying to make the transition
from psychological Moscow
to psychological Hawaii.
When Mary left her husband in December,
she made herself despise him
as a way of pushing off,
like you would push off from the wall of a swimming pool,
but then she gradually believed her own story
of how horrible he was,
and when I talked to her in March,
she was still spitting on his memory:
you would have thought she never had a heart.
There's a wheel turning in the center of the earth
and over it, our feet are always running, running,
trying to keep pace.
Then there's a period of quietude and rue,
when you want to crawl inside yourself,
when you prefer ugliness to hope.
Last night the sunset was so pink and swollen
the sky looked like it had gotten an infection.
We were sitting on the lawn and sipping lemonade.
Inflamed clouds were throbbing in the fevered light.
Shannon murmured, Somebody better call a doctor.
Kath said, Somebody get some aspirin.
But nobody moved.
And the smell of lilacs and manure blew out of the fields
with such complexity and sweetness, we closed our eyes.
It had nothing to do with being good, or smart, or choosing right.
It had to do with being lucky--
something none of us had ever imagined.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the man who wrote the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, born in Lons-le-Saunier, France (1760). He wrote the song in 1792, in a fit of excitement after learning that France was going to war with Austria. It's called the Marseillaise because a group of soldiers from Marseilles was singing the song as it marched into Paris later that year. The lyrics of the song are filled with some of the most bloody and violent imagery of any national anthem. The chorus is:
To arms, oh citizens!
Form up in serried ranks!
March on, march on!
And drench our fields
With their tainted blood.
It's the birthday of theologian Karl Barth, born in Basel, Switzerland (1886). He argued that Christian theology had been compromised by modern culture, and that Christians had become out of touch with Christ. Barth said, "The gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question mark against all truths."
It was on this day in 1994 that Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the President of South Africa. He had just been released from prison four years earlier, after spending twenty-seven years as a political prisoner of the South African government.
He spent eighteen of those years in a small cell in Robben Island Prison, off the coast of Cape Town. He would get up early, around 5:30 or 6:00, and exercise for an hour, running in place and doing sit-ups and push-ups. He would take a shower, have a bowl of porridge at 7:00, and then go outside to clean his toilet bucket with all of the other prisoners. Sometimes he was forced to hammer stones all morning. Other times he spent the morning walking around the courtyard and working in his garden, where he grew vegetables like onions, tomatoes, and lettuce. He often spent much of the afternoon and evening reading books in the prison library. He learned to speak Afrikaans, the first language of most of the prison guards, and he read history books and biographies. Before his imprisonment he had been a lawyer, and he continued to study law in prison.
There were several other black political prisoners there, and Mandela emerged as a leader right from the start. He was incredibly polite to the guards, and he got to be on such good terms with many of them that they would do him favors like bringing him an extra blanket or letting him read the newspaper. If guards were rude to the prisoners, Mandela would tell them quietly that they had no right to treat them like that. If they tried to rush the prisoners through a chore, Mandela would tell everyone to work more slowly. Whenever another prisoner had a problem he would go ask Mandela for advice.
Mandela and the other prisoners communicated to each other and to people outside the prison using secret notes. They sent tiny written messages in empty matchboxes; they wrapped notes in plastic and taped them to dirty dishes and toilet bowls; and they wrote messages in milk on white paper, which only became visible when sprayed with the disinfectant they used to clean their cells. In this way, Mandela and the other prisoners were able to get various bits of news from each other, and to talk about the political situation and how they were going to change it when they got out.
On two separate occasions, the South African government offered to let Mandela out of prison if he promised to live in his hometown and renounce violence. The government was worried that he would die in prison, and they were afraid that if that happened he would become a martyr. But Mandela refused both offers; he said only free men can negotiate. Finally, in February of 1990, he was released from prison on his own terms.
In 1991 Mandela was elected President of the African National Congress party. Two years later he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and the year after that he was elected President of South Africa in the country's first democratic election. He won in a landslide, with about sixty-five percent of the votes. He was sworn in on this day, May 10, ten years ago, in a ceremony in Pretoria. The inauguration was attended by leaders from around the world, including Hillary Clinton, Fidel Castro, and Yasser Arafat. Three of Mandela's former prison guards were there, and about a billion people across the world watched on TV.
In his inauguration speech Mandela said, "We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity--a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world. . . . Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another, and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world."
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