Nov. 27, 2014
Forgive us. We have dragged them into the night
in taffeta dresses, in stiff collars and ties,
with the wind damp, the sleet raking their cheeks,
to school lunchrooms fitted with makeshift stages
where we will sit under bad fluorescent lighting
on folding chairs, and they will sing and play.
We will watch the first grader with little cymbals,
bending her knees, hunched in concentration
while neighbors snicker at her ardent face.
Forgive us. We will hear the seventh-grade boy
as his voice finally loses its innocence
forever, at the unbearable solo moment
and know that now, for years, he will wince at the thought
of singing, yet will ache to sing, in silence,
silence even to the generation to come
with its night, its sleet, its hideous lunchroom chairs.
Today is Thanksgiving Day. Although the Thanksgiving festivities celebrated by the Pilgrims and a tribe of Wampanoag Indians happened in 1621, it wasn't until 1789 that the newly sworn-in President George Washington declared, in his first presidential proclamation, a day of national "thanksgiving and prayer" for that November.
The holiday fell out of custom, though, and by the mid 1800s only a handful of states officially celebrated Thanksgiving, on a date of their choice. It was the editor of a women's magazine, Sarah Josepha Hale, a widow and the author of the poem "Mary Had a Little Lamb," who campaigned for a return of the holiday. For 36 years, she wrote articles about the Plymouth colonists in her magazine, trying to revive interest in the subject, and editorials suggesting a national holiday. Hale wrote to four presidents about her idea — Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan — before her fifth letter got notice. In 1863, exactly 74 years after Washington had made his proclamation, President Lincoln issued his own, asking that citizens "in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise." He requested prayers especially for those widowed and orphaned by the ongoing Civil War, as well as gratitude for "fruitful fields," enlarging borders of settlements, abundant mines, and a burgeoning population.
The fall of 1786 had been an eventful one for Burns. He wasn't making any money farming, and after he got his girlfriend Jean Armour pregnant, he decided he needed to find a way to support his new family — not to mention his illegitimate one-year-old daughter, whose mother was a servant in the Burns household and wanted money. Burns accepted a friend's offer to work as a clerk in Jamaica, and was set to leave in September.
A few weeks before his departure date, he published Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), hoping to raise enough money to pay his fare to Jamaica. Instead, the book was so successful that Burns began to doubt if he should leave Scotland. Then Jean gave birth to twins. At the same time, he received word that Scottish poet Thomas Blacklock liked his book and encouraged him to come to Edinburgh. Burns wrote: "I had taken the last farewell of my few friends, my chest was on the road to Greenock; I had composed the last song I should ever measure in Scotland — 'The Gloomy night is gathering fast' — when a letter from Dr. Blacklock to a friend of mine overthrew all my schemes, by opening new prospects to my poetic ambition. The Doctor belonged to a set of critics for whose applause I had not dared to hope. His opinion that I would meet with encouragement in Edinburgh for a second edition, fired me so much, that away I posted for that city, without a single acquaintance, or a single letter of introduction." He borrowed a pony from a friend, and off he went.
The story goes that during his two-day trip to Edinburgh, he was entertained lavishly by farmers eager to meet the poet. A friend of his had arranged for a farmhouse where he could stay for the night. There were so many people excited to see Burns that when he arrived, one farmer raised a makeshift flag — a white sheet tied to a pitchfork — and on cue all the neighboring farmers arrived to host Burns for a huge meal. He rode on to another farmhouse for a large breakfast the next morning, and yet another farm for lunch. By evening of the second day, he finally arrived in Edinburgh.
He was delighted by his reception there, and everyone's enthusiasm about publishing a second edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. About a week after his arrival, he wrote in a letter: "For my own affairs, I am in a fair way of becoming as eminent as Thomas à Kempis or John Bunyan; and you may expect henceforth to see my birthday inserted among the wonderful events, in the Poor Robin's and Aberdeen Almanacks, along with the Black Monday, and the Battle of Bothwell Bridge. My Lord Glencairn and the Dean of Faculty, Mr. H. Erskine, have taken me under their wing; and by all probability, I shall soon be the tenth worthy, and the eight wise man of the world. Through my Lord's influence it is inserted in the records of the Caledonian Hunt, that they universally, one and all, subscribe for the second edition."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®
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