Monday

Dec. 19, 2011

Advent

by Mary Jo Salter

Wind whistling, as it does
in winter, and I think
nothing of it until

it snaps a shutter off
her bedroom window, spins
it over the roof and down

to crash on the deck in back,
like something out of Oz.
We look up, stunned—then glad

to be safe and have a story,
characters in a fable
we only half-believe.

Look, in my surprise
I somehow split a wall,
the last one in the house

we're making of gingerbread.
We'll have to improvise:
prop the two halves forward

like an open double door
and with a tube of icing
cement them to the floor.

Five days until Christmas,
and the house cannot be closed.
When she peers into the cold

interior we've exposed,
she half-expects to find
three magi in the manger,

a mother and her child.
She half-expects to read
on tablets of gingerbread

a line or two of Scripture,
as she has every morning
inside a dated shutter

on her Advent calendar.
She takes it from the mantel
and coaxes one fingertip

under the perforation,
as if her future hinges
on not tearing off the flap

under which a thumbnail picture
by Raphael or Giorgione,
Hans Memling or David

of apses, niches, archways,
cradles a smaller scene
of a mother and her child,

of the lidded jewel-box
of Mary's downcast eyes.
Flee into Egypt, cries

the angel of the Lord
to Joseph in a dream,
for Herod will seek the young

child to destroy him. While
she works to tile the roof
with shingled peppermints,

I wash my sugared hands
and step out to the deck
to lug the shutter in,

a page torn from a book
still blank for the two of us,
a mother and her child.

"Advent" by Mary Jo Salter, from Open Shutters. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Italian writer Italo Svevo (books by this author) was born on this day in Trieste, Italy (1861). He was devoted to literature but went into business, working as a bank clerk and writing a theater column and stories under a pseudonym on the side. When he published his first two books, A Life (1893) and As a Man Grows Older (1898), they were ignored by readers and critics alike.

Svevo needed to improve his English for business reasons and hired a tutor who turned out to be aspiring writer James Joyce, who had come to Italy to teach. Svevo shared his books with Joyce, who felt the Italian was a neglected genius. With Joyce's encouragement, Svevo wrote the book for which he is known, Confessions of Zeno (1923), a fictional memoir of a man undergoing psychoanalysis that today is considered one of the greatest Italian novels of the 20th century.

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Eleanor Hodgman Porter (books by this author), born in Littleton, New Hampshire (1868). Beginning with her first novel, Cross Currents (1907), Porter was popular with readers, who loved her sentimental tales of orphaned heiresses and lost little girls. But her novel Pollyanna (1913), about a young girl who looks for the good in even the most dire hardships, eclipsed them all, spending two years on the best-sellers list and ultimately leading to a play, a movie, a calendar, and a daily almanac of reasons to be glad. Within a decade, the word "Pollyanna" entered the American lexicon, defined by Webster's Dictionary as "an excessively or blindly optimistic person" and one who is cheerful to a fault.

After the publication of a best-selling sequel, Pollyanna Grows Up (1915), Porter became somewhat defensive about the character she'd created. She said: "You know I have been made to suffer from the Pollyanna books. ... People have thought that Pollyanna chirped that she was 'glad' at everything. ... I have never believed that we ought to deny discomfort and pain and evil; I have merely thought that it is far better to 'greet the unknown with a cheer.'"

On this day in 1932, the British Empire Service — now known as the BBC World Service — went on the air as a shortwave service to send news and messages to the outposts of the British Empire. With this new resource, King George V decided that year that he would broadcast a Christmas message so that he could reach the "men and women so cut off by the snows and the deserts that only voices out of the air can reach them," and give them holiday wishes from home. Since then, the yearly Royal Christmas Broadcast has become an important part of Christmas Day celebrations for many in Britain and around the world, and the tradition is carried on to this day by George V's granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II.

It was on this day in 1732 that Benjamin Franklin (books by this author) began publishing Poor Richard's Almanack.

Poor Richard's Almanac was a hodgepodge of things: It had information about the movements of the moon and stars, weather reports, historical tidbits, poems, and those adages that Franklin became famous for, like "Fish and visitors stink in three days" and "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead" and "A penny saved is twopence dear" (often misquoted as "A penny saved is a penny earned"). Some of the stuff was original and some was borrowed, drawing upon diverse sources like Native American folklore, common farmers' superstitions, politicians' speeches, and published authors' writings.

Franklin published his wildly successful almanac for a quarter century, and its popularity increased by the year. At its height, the book sold 10,000 copies a year, making it a best-seller in colonial America. Books were expensive and hard to come by in the colonies, and Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac was the only book that many households owned besides the Bible. It made Franklin rich and famous.

Ben Franklin said, "God helps them that help themselves."

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