Friday

May 30, 2014

The Months

by Linda Pastan

March
When the Earl King came
to steal away the child
in Goethe's poem, the father said
don't be afraid,
it's just the wind...
As if it weren't the wind
that blows away the tender
fragments of this world—
leftover leaves in the corners
of the garden, a Lenten Rose
that thought it safe
to bloom so early.

April
In the pastel blur
of the garden,
the cherry
and redbud
shake rain
from their delicate
shoulders, as petals
of pink
dogwood
wash down the ditches
in dreamlike
rivers of color.

May
Mayapple, daffodil,
hyacinth, lily,
and by the front
porch steps
every billowing
shade of purple
and lavender lilac,
my mother's favorite flower,
sweet breath drifting through
the open windows:
perfume of memory-conduit
of spring.

"The Months" by Linda Pastan from The Last Uncle. © W. W. Norton, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated. The monument was first proposed in 1867, but construction didn't begin until 1914; the cornerstone was set in 1915. Architect Henry Bacon designed it to resemble the Parthenon, believing that a defender of democracy should be memorialized in a building that pays homage to the birthplace of democracy. The monument has 36 marble columns, one for each state in the union at the time of Lincoln's assassination. On the south wall is inscribed the Gettysburg Address, and on the north, his second inaugural address. There's a persistent myth that one of the words in the inaugural address is misspelled, but it's not true. Stonemasons did accidentally carve an "E" where they meant to carve an "F," but it was filled in immediately and no evidence remains.

The marble and granite chosen for the monument came from Massachusetts, Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee, Indiana, and Alabama. Bacon intended to show the divided nation coming together to build something of lasting significance.

Sculptor Daniel Chester French studied photographs of Lincoln for years; his Lincoln appears somber, even care-worn, one hand closed in a fist and the other in a more relaxed position. Though it's commonly thought that the sculpture's hands are forming the American Sign Language letters "A" and "L," the National Park Service reports that this was French's way to show Lincoln's strength and compassion. There's also a rumor that the profile of Robert E. Lee — or Ulysses S. Grant, or Jefferson Davis — can be seen in the locks of the sculpture's hair, but the National Parks Service insists that these are merely wayward strands.

The monument was dedicated in front of an audience of more than 50,000 people. Even though Lincoln was known as the Great Emancipator, the audience was segregated; keynote speaker Robert Moton, president of the Tuskegee Institute and an African-American, was not permitted to sit on the speakers' platform. Just over 40 years later, on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King Jr. would give his "I have a dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in front of an audience of 200,000.

It was on this day in 1849 that Henry David Thoreau self-published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, his first book (books by this author). It was an account of the two-week boating trip Thoreau had taken with his brother, John, 10 years before, from Massachusetts to New Hampshire and back.

Thoreau had always been the introverted and studious one, while John was gregarious and fun-loving. They were close; John helped pay his brother's tuition to Harvard, and helped Thoreau open his own school when he got fired from his teaching job over his objection to corporal punishment. A few years after their boat trip, John contracted tetanus and died in his brother's arms. Thoreau decided to seclude himself and began building a cabin by the banks of Walden Pond. He lived there for two years, completing the drafts of both his A Week, often seen as a memorial to his brother, John, and a series of lectures that would eventually become the classic Walden. Since A Week was initially rejected, Thoreau was only able to publish it by paying for its printing from its sales. Four years later, after paying off the printing debt, Thoreau wrote in his journal that his publisher had delivered the remaining unsold copies to his home. He wrote, "I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself."

It was on this day in 1431 that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy in Rouen, France. She was an ordinary French peasant girl, living during the Hundred Years War between France and England. When she was still a teenager, she heard the voice of God telling her to join the battle and help defeat the English army. She performed a series of apparent miracles and persuaded the French army to let her command a group of soldiers. At the battle of Orleans, she led the revitalized French army, bearing a flag with Jesus' name written across it, and the English were defeated. She continued fighting battles until May 23, 1430, when she was captured by enemy soldiers. They turned her over to the church to be tried as a heretic, idolater, and sorcerer. Her enemies believed that the only way they could have lost in battle to a woman was if she had been using witchcraft.

Her trial lasted for months. Every day, she was brought into the interrogation room, where she was the only woman among judges, priests, soldiers, and guards. The judges hoped to trick her into saying something that would incriminate her as a witch or an idolater, so they asked endless questions about all aspects of her life, in no particular order. They were especially interested in her childhood. And because the transcripts of the trial were recorded, we now know more about her early life than any other common person of her time.

Joan testified that she first started hearing divine voices when she as 13, while working in her father's garden. When God commanded her to join the battle against the English, she told her parents she was going to help her cousin deliver a baby. The judges asked her if she felt guilty for leaving her parents, and she said, "Since God commanded it, had I had a hundred fathers and a hundred mothers, had I been born a king's daughter, I should have departed."

When she wasn't being interrogated, she spent her time in prison chained to a wooden block. After months of questioning, she was told that if she didn't sign a confession, she would be put to death. She finally signed it, but a few days later she renounced the confession, and on this day in 1431, she was burned at the stake. She was 19 years old.

She was mostly forgotten for about 400 years, and then she was revived as an inspirational national figure during the French revolution. In 1920, she was canonized as a saint by Pope Benedict XV. She is the only person ever burned at the stake for heresy who later became a saint. The file on her at the Vatican is still sealed. She's been the subject of more than 20 movies, as well as plays by writers such as Voltaire and George Bernard Shaw. More than 20,000 books have been written about her.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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