Sep. 22, 2013

Wedding Cake

by Naomi Shihab Nye

Once on a plane
a woman asked me to hold her baby
and disappeared.
I figured it was safe,
our being on a plane and all.
How far could she go?

She returned one hour later,
having changed her clothes
and washed her hair.
I didn't recognize her.

By this time the baby
and I had examined
each other's necks.
We had cried a little.
I had a silver bracelet
and a watch.
Gold studs glittered
in the baby's ears.
She wore a tiny white dress
leafed with layers
like a wedding cake.

I did not want
to give her back.

The baby's curls coiled tightly
against her scalp,
another alphabet.
I read new new new.
My mother gets tired.
I'll chew your hand

The baby left my skirt crumpled,
my lap aching.
Now I'm her secret guardian,
the little nub of dream
that rises slightly
but won't come clear.

As she grows,
as she feels ill at ease,
I'll bob my knee.

What will she forget?
Whom will she marry?
He'd better check with me.
I'll say once she flew
dressed like a cake
between two doilies of cloud.
She could slip the card into a pocket,
pull it out.
Already she knew the small finger
was funnier than the whole arm.

"Wedding Cake" by Naomi Shihab Nye, from Fuel. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the Brooklyn Book Festival, the largest free literary event in New York City. This annual event began in 2006. It was the brainchild of punk rocker-turned-independent publisher Johnny Temple. He wanted a Brooklyn-focused event, and his cause was championed by Borough President Marty Markowitz, whose office runs the festival.

This year, there are hundreds of authors participating in the festival's panels and readings. Many are from Brooklyn, but they are also coming from countries all over the world, including Jamaica, Ireland, South Africa, Lebanon, Argentina, and Israel. This year's authors include Tom Wolfe, Pete Hamill, Art Spiegelman, Sharon Olds, Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat, Colum McCann, and Sapphire. There are panels on a huge range of topics, including literary love, banned young adult books, the essay form, basketball, comics, crime fiction, the War on Terror, mothers, sex, graphic novels, cooking, dogs, and the American Dream.

The events all take place at the Brooklyn Borough Hall and on stages set up around the outdoor plaza. Last year, more than 40,000 people participated. The past week has been full of literary happenings, called "bookend events," in cafés, parks, theaters, and libraries all over the borough.

Novelist Colson Whitehead wrote: "As you may have heard, all the writers are in Brooklyn these days. [...] In fact, the physical act of moving your possessions from Manhattan to Brooklyn is now the equivalent of a two-year M.F.A. Program. [...] I have a hard time understanding all the hype. I dig it here and all, but it's just a place. It does not have magical properties. In interviews, I get asked a lot, 'What's it like to write in Brooklyn?' I get invited to do panels with other Brooklyn writers to discuss what it's like to be a writer in Brooklyn. I expect it's like writing in Manhattan, but there aren't as many tourists walking very slowly in front of you when you step out for coffee. It's like writing in Paris, but there are fewer people speaking French."

The poet Walt Whitman, who spent much of his life in Brooklyn, wrote of New York City: "There is no place like it, no place with an atom of its glory, pride, and exultancy. It lays its hand upon a man's bowels; he grows drunk with ecstasy; he grows young and full of glory, he feels that he can never die."

Today marks the autumnal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, the first day of fall and the point in which the Sun is directly above the equator and the hours of day and night are nearly equal. In the Southern Hemisphere, today marks the vernal equinox, the first day of spring.

It was on this day in 1961 that Congress approved a bill to establish the Peace Corps, and President Kennedy signed it into law. Less than a year earlier, then-Senator Kennedy was in the middle of an exhausting campaign tour. On October 13th, Kennedy wrapped up his third debate against Nixon and flew from New York to Michigan. He delivered a campaign speech at the airport, and another at Eastern Michigan University. His stops took longer than expected, so he arrived at the University of Michigan late — at about 2 a.m. — where he was hoping to get some sleep before the next day's campaign stops. He had no intention of giving a speech there, but when he got out of his car, he found thousands of students who had waited up in the cold and drizzle to see him. He started his standard campaign speech, but changed his mind and began to improvise. He challenged the college students, asking how many of them would be willing to give up part of their careers to volunteer abroad on behalf of their country. The audience was so enthusiastic that they sent him a petition with the names of 1,000 students who were willing to do exactly that. He continued to campaign around this idea, and eventually received more than 25,000 letters in support of this "peace corps" of young Americans.

Kennedy took office in January, and a few days later commissioned a Peace Corps Task Force. By March, he had issued an executive order establishing the Peace Corps on a temporary basis.

Over the summer, Kennedy tried to convince Congress to adopt the Peace Corps permanently, but many members of Congress opposed the idea, especially Republicans. They didn't think taxpayers should have to pay for it, and one Republican senator called the Peace Corps a "utopian brainwash." But Republican representative Marguerite Stitt Church had traveled extensively in Africa, and she disagreed. She gave a speech and said: "Here is something which is aimed right, which is American, which is sacrificial — and which above all can somehow carry at the human level, to the people of the world, what they need to know; what it is to be free; what it is to have a next step and be able to take it; what it is to have something to look forward to, in an increase of human dignity and confidence." Her speech changed the opinion of many Republicans and the bill to establish the Peace Corps was passed on this day with wide bilateral support.

It was on this day in 1862 that President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves in rebel states free as of January 1 the following year. The war was not going well, and the emancipation of the slaves was meant to build morale in the North. Lincoln waited for a Union victory before he announced it. The Union Army beat back the Confederates at Antietam, the bloodiest single day of the war. Five days later, on this day in 1862, Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet. By the end of the war, more than 500,000 slaves had fled to freedom behind Northern lines. About 200,000 black soldiers and sailors, many of them former slaves, served in the armed forces. They helped the North win the war.

A few months before he died, Lincoln said, "[The Emancipation Proclamation] is the central act of my administration, and the greatest event of the 19th century."

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