MONDAY, 14 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Sweetness" by Stephen Dunn, from New and Selected Poems 1974-1994. © W.W. Norton, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Just when it has seemed I couldn't bear
   one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
   has come
and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it,
   for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving

someone or something, the world shrunk
   to mouth-size,
hand-size, and never seeming small.

I acknowledge there is no sweetness
   that doesn't leave a stain,
no sweetness that's ever sufficiently sweet. ...

Tonight a friend called to say his lover
   was killed in a car
he was driving. His voice was low

and guttural, he repeated what he needed
   to repeat, and I repeated
the one or two words we have for such grief

until we were speaking only in tones.
   Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive,
   then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don't care

where it's been, or what bitter road
   it's traveled
to come so far, to taste so good.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the 400th anniversary of the establishment of Jamestown Colony, the first permanent English settlement in what would become the United States of America. At first, it was a disaster. Their plan was to find gold or silver or a river route to the Pacific Ocean. But they settled in a swampland, the mosquitoes were terrible, and many people caught malaria. The colonists also had trouble growing enough food, and they failed to dig an adequate fresh-water well. There was an epidemic of dysentery and a severe food shortage. More than 400 people starved to death.

The colony only began to be a success when they stopped focusing on gold and began to grow tobacco. It was John Rolfe who introduced a new type of tobacco plant from the West Indies. The crop proved enormously profitable, and it inspired more investment and more colonists to join the settlement. Rolfe went on to marry the princess Pocahontas.

By 1619, Jamestown was thriving, and it was that year that the settlers formed a new kind of government with a general assembly, the members of which were elected by the citizens of the colony. It was the first-ever representative government in what became the United States. That very same year, a ship arrived in Jamestown carrying 50 African slaves, 20 of which were purchased for work in the tobacco fields. And so Jamestown became the place where both democracy and slavery were born in America.


It was on this day in 1796 that the doctor Edward Jenner (books by this author) inoculated an eight-year-old boy with a vaccine for smallpox, the first safe vaccine ever developed.

Smallpox was the most devastating disease in the world at the time—a disease that caused boils to break out all over the body. It killed about one in every four adults who caught it, and one in every three children. It was so contagious that most human beings in populous areas caught it at some point in their lives. During the 18th century alone, it killed about 60 million people.

Jenner submitted a paper about his new inoculation procedure to the prestigious Royal Society of London, but it was rejected. So Jenner published his ideas at his own expense in a 75-page book that came out in 1798. The book was a huge sensation. The procedure eventually caught on, and it was called a "vaccine" after the Latin word for cow. It wasn't perfect at first, because of poor sanitation and dirty needles, but it was the first time anyone had successfully prevented the infection of any contagious disease.

What made it so remarkable was that Jenner accomplished this before the causes of disease were even understood. It would be decades before anyone even knew about the existence of germs.


It was on this day in 1804 that Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark set out from St. Louis, Missouri, on their overland expedition to the Pacific Coast and back. They were very different men. Clark was levelheaded and easy going. Lewis was romantic and ambitious and prone to depression. On the day they set out, William Clark wrote in his journal, "Rained the fore part of the day. ... I Set out at 4 oClock P.M., in the presence of many of the neighboring in habitants, and proceeded on under a jentle brease up the Missourie ... a heavy rain this after-noon." Meriwether Lewis wrote on the same day, "We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden. I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life."




TUESDAY, 15 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Siren Song" by Margaret Atwood, from Selected Poems 1965 -1975. © Houghton Mifflin, 1987. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Siren Song

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:


the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the beached skulls


the song nobody knows
because anyone who has heard it
is dead, and the others can't remember.


Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?


I don't enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical


with these two feathery maniacs,
I don't enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.


I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song


is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique


at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1942 that William Faulkner's (books by this author) book Go Down, Moses was published. It's a collection of seven linked short stories that all take place in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, and all concern members of the racially mixed McCaslin family. The most famous story in the book is "The Bear."


It's the birthday of the man who wrote The Wizard of Oz, Lyman Frank Baum, (books by this author) born in Chittenango, New York, in 1856. As a young man, he ran a general store in Aberdeen, South Dakota, that he called "Baum's Bazaar," where, with a cigar constantly dangling from his mouth, he liked to entertain children by telling them fairy tales and giving them candy as they gathered around on the dusty, wooden sidewalk. In 1897, he published his collection of Mother Goose stories, Mother Goose in Prose. Two years later, he met the illustrator William Denslow, and the pair published Father Goose, His Book (1899), a huge success. Baum made so much money from his book that he was able to buy a summer home in Macatawa Park, Michigan, where he built all of the furniture by hand.

In 1900, Baum wrote the book that made him famous, The Wizard of Oz, illustrated by Denslow. The book began as a story he told to some neighborhood children; Frank thought it was so good that he stopped in the middle of the story to go start writing it down. The story of Dorothy, her dog Toto, the Scarecrow, the Lion, and the Tin Man and their journey down the yellow brick road was an instant classic.

Baum was a socialist, and the Emerald City of Oz was his socialist utopia. He wrote, "There were no poor people in the land of Oz, because there was no such thing as money, and all property of every sort belonged to the Ruler. Each person was given freely by his neighbors whatever he required for his use, which is as much as anyone may reasonably desire. Every one worked half the time and played half the time, and the people enjoyed the work as much as they did the play, because it is good to be occupied and to have something to do."

Frank Baum wrote, "No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home."


It's the birthday of short-story writer and novelist Katherine Anne Porter, (books by this author) born Callie Russell Porter in Indian Creek, Texas (1890). She was a woman who might never have become a writer if she hadn't caught tuberculosis. She was working as a singer and a dancer in Chicago at the time, and her brother paid for her to go to a sanatorium in Texas.

Porter spent two years recovering there, surrounded by a group of intelligent young women, including some of the first female journalists in the area. She was inspired by their example and decided to become a writer. She visited Mexico in 1919 to cover the revolution there and spent the next several months meeting revolutionaries, artists, anthropologists, and politicians. And it was there that she began to write the first of her serious short stories.

Ten years after her trip to Mexico, she was going through her papers when she found some notes for a possible novel about Mexico she had made all those years ago, and she used the notes to write the story "Flowering Judas," about a young American woman living in Mexico just before the revolution. The story made her famous when it was published, and it became the title story of her first collection, Flowering Judas and Other Stories (1930). She was 40 years old.

Most of Porter's early stories were about her experiences in Mexico, and it was only after she had traveled to Europe that she began to write about her childhood in rural Texas. One of the memories that came to her while she was living in Europe was of a story she heard as a child about a man in her town who was accused of murder and who went from door to door through the town, trying to persuade all his neighbors that he was innocent. That memory inspired her to write the short novel Noon Wine (1937), which most critics consider her masterpiece.




WEDNESDAY, 16 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Stealing Lilacs" by Alice N. Persons, from Never Say Never. © Moon Pie Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Stealing Lilacs

A guaranteed miracle,
it happens for two weeks each May,
this bounty of riches
where McMansion, trailer,
the humblest driveway
burst with color—pale lavender,
purple, darker plum—
and glorious scent.
This morning a battered station wagon
drew up on my street
and a very fat woman got out
and starting tearing branches
from my neighbor's tall old lilac—
grabbing, snapping stems, heaving
armloads of purple sprays
into her beater.
A tangle of kids' arms and legs
writhed in the car.
I almost opened the screen door
to say something,
but couldn't begrudge her theft,
or the impulse
to steal such beauty.
Just this once,
there is enough for everyone.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who served as Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, born in Florida, New York (1801). Seward was considered a shoo-in for the Republican nomination before the election of 1860. He'd been the governor of New York and a senator from New York, and he was probably the most widely known and respected Republican politician in the country. Before he went to the nominating convention in Chicago that year, he had already composed the resignation speech he planned to make to the Senate when he accepted his party's nomination.

So Seward could hardly believe it when a lesser-known lawyer from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln outflanked him at the convention and won the nomination instead. Seward probably lost the nomination because he was seen as too extreme in his anti-slavery views. In one famous speech, he had argued that the Constitution might allow for slavery, but that there was a higher law than the Constitution. Moderates saw that point of view as too dangerous, and so they nominated Lincoln instead.

Seward viewed Lincoln as an inexperienced country bumpkin, and so when Lincoln asked Seward to serve as secretary of state, Seward saw it as his chance to run the government from behind the scenes. He assumed that Lincoln would be unprepared and easy to control. When the Confederates blockaded federal troops at Fort Sumter, Seward advised Lincoln to back down and avoid war. Lincoln did precisely the opposite. Seward was so infuriated that Lincoln hadn't taken his advice that he wrote the president a angry memo, basically calling Lincoln a fool. But within a month, he realized that Lincoln had been right to force a confrontation with the South.

Seward expected Lincoln to fire him for writing such an insubordinate memo, and he was shocked when Lincoln instead forgave him. Seward wrote to his wife, "[Lincoln's] magnanimity is almost superhuman. The president is the best of us." Seward went on to become Lincoln's most trusted advisor and friend in the administration.


It's the birthday of journalist Studs Terkel, (books by this author) born Louis Terkel in the Bronx, New York City (1912). He moved with his family to Chicago when he was a boy, and a few years later his father was disabled by a heart condition. Terkel's mother got a job managing a hotel for blue-collar factory workers. Terkel got to know the men who stayed at his mother's hotel, and he stayed up late at night talking to them and listening to their stories.

He worked as an actor as a young man and got a series of parts in plays and radio dramas, usually playing gangsters and villains. He went on to host programs on TV and radio, interviewing politicians, writers, and celebrities.

Then, in the 1960s, he decided to start interviewing ordinary people for a book called Division Street (1967), about the changing demographics of Chicago. He went on to publish a series of books in which he interviewed ordinary people about different subjects, including Working (1974), "The Good War": An Oral History of World War II (1984), RACE: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel about the American Obsession (1991), and Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith (2001). His book Hope Dies Last came out in 2003.


It was on this day in 1763 that James Boswell first met Samuel Johnson, the man who would become the subject of his life's work. Boswell had heard that Johnson sometimes stopped by a particular bookshop in London, so Boswell began to spend time there in hopes of running into the great man. Boswell was drinking tea at the bookshop on this day in 1763, when his friend Thomas Davies told him that Johnson had just come into the shop. Boswell got incredibly nervous when Johnson came into the room. He introduced himself, but he and Johnson got into an argument about a man they both knew, and the meeting ended poorly.

But Boswell wouldn't give up. He went to a party at Johnson's house a few weeks later, and after the party was over Johnson asked him to stay a little longer to talk. The two men became close friends, and Boswell began to write a book about Johnson that would become his obsession. Boswell tried to take notes on everything Johnson did and said in his presence, in order to preserve it for posterity.

Those notes eventually became Boswell's book The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). By 1825, all of Samuel Johnson's writings were out of print and they didn't come back into print for another hundred years. But Boswell's book about Johnson went through 41 English editions in the 19th century alone. Boswell managed to write a book about Johnson that is more interesting to us today that the books that Johnson wrote. The Life of Samuel Johnson is now generally considered the greatest biography of all time.




THURSDAY, 17 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "A Twice Named Family" by Traci Dant. Reprinted with permission of the author.

A Twice Named Family

I come
from a family
that twice names

its own.
One name
for the world.

One name
for home.
Lydi, Joely, Door,

Bud, Bobby, Bea,
Puddin, Cluster, Lindy,
Money, Duddy, Vess.


Yes,
we are
a two-named family

cause somebody
way back knew
you needed a name

to cook chitlins in.
A name
to put your feet up in.

A name
that couldn't be
fired.

A name
that couldn't be
denied a loan.

A name
that couldn't be
asked

to go
through anyone's
back door.

Somebody way back
knew we needed names
to be loved in.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1792 that a group of 24 New York City businessmen founded the New York Stock Exchange while gathered under a buttonwood tree on Wall Street. Wall Street had long been the location for an outdoor auction, where businessmen sold commodities such as molasses, tobacco, and furs. With the recent opening of the first Federal Bank by Alexander Hamilton, brokers on Wall Street had begun selling securities, stocks, and government bonds as well. And so on this day, that group of traders gathered under that buttonwood tree, signed an agreement to only trade securities with each other, to charge a fixed commission rate, and to avoid other auctions. The New York Stock Exchange continued as an outdoor auction until the following year, when it moved into the upper floor of a nearby coffee house.


It was on this day in 1954 that the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. The case got its name from a seven-year-old girl named Linda Brown in Topeka, Kansas, who had to travel 21 blocks every day to an all-black elementary school, even though she lived just seven blocks from another elementary school for white children. Her father, Oliver Brown, asked that his daughter be allowed to attend the nearby white school, and when the white school's principal refused, Brown sued. At the time, 21 states had laws allowing segregation, affecting almost 12 million children in more than 11,000 school districts.

The legal basis for segregation came from the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which had established the precedent that separate facilities for black and white students could be constitutional as long as those separate facilities were equal. When Brown v. Board of Education first came before the Supreme Court in 1952, most of the justices were personally opposed to segregation, but only four of them openly supported overturning such a long-established precedent.

But in September of 1953, just before the rehearing of the case, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson died of a sudden heart attack. For the new chief justice, President Eisenhower chose Earl Warren, then the governor of California. As governor of California, Earl Warren had helped to intern many Japanese Americans during World War II, and most historians believe he felt deep regret at having done so. Ever since the war, he had devoted himself to the issue of civil rights. So when he became chief justice, he was the ideal person to argue for declaring segregation unconstitutional.

Warren's vote alone could have given the court a 5-4 vote margin overturning segregation, but Warren decided that he had to get a unanimous decision for such a controversial case. Warren had never served as a judge in his life. But he was a master politician, and he used his art of persuasion to bring the last few justices around to his point of view. The final holdout was Justice Stanley Reed, from Kentucky. Warren finally persuaded Reed that a lone dissent from a Southerner could have an inflammatory effect on the nation.

Once he had all the votes, Warren drafted the decision himself. To announce the decision, he read it aloud to a crowd at the court on this day in 1954. He said, in part, "Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race ... deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does." Justice Stanley Reed, who had been the final holdout, wept as the decision was read.

But the effect of the case was a long time in coming. It wasn't until about 1970 that most Southern schools became fully integrated, but even then it took more Supreme Court cases to establish a busing system that encouraged diversity in public schools. Today, there is still widespread school and housing segregation, even if it's not supported by law.


It's the birthday of composer Erik Satie, born in a seaport town in northern France in 1866. He's known for his simples piano pieces with exotic titles like Veritable Flabby Preludes (for a Dog) (1912). When he was accused of writing music without form, he immediately composed a series of piano duets called Three Pear-shaped Pieces (1903). Many of his scores gave unusual instructions to the performers, like "Light as an egg," "With astonishment," or "Work it out yourself."


It's the birthday of English novelist Robert Smith Surtees, (books by this author) born in 1803 in County Durham. He wrote many humorous novels, including Jorrocks' Jaunts and Jollities (1838) and Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour (1853).

He said, "More people are flattered into virtue than bullied out of vice."




FRIDAY, 18 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Mrs. Krikorian" by Sharon Olds, from Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002. © Alfred A Knopf, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Mrs. Krikorian

She saved me. When I arrived in 6th grade,
a known criminal, the new teacher
asked me to stay after school the first day, she said
I've heard about you. She was a tall woman,
with a deep crevice between her breasts,
and a large, calm nose. She said,
This is a special library pass.
As soon as you finish your hour's work

that hour's work that took ten minutes
and then the devil glanced into the room
and found me empty, a house standing open—
you can go to the library. Every hour
I'd zip through the work in a dash and slip out of my
seat as if out of God's side and sail
down to the library, solo through the empty
powerful halls, flash my pass
and stroll over to the dictionary
to look up the most interesting word
I knew, spank, dipping two fingers
into the jar of library paste to
suck that tart mucilage as I
came to the page with the cocker spaniel's
silks curling up like the fine steam of the body.
After spank, and breast, I'd move on
to Abe Lincoln and Helen Keller,
safe in their goodness till the bell, thanks
to Mrs. Krikorian, amiable giantess
with the kind eyes. When she asked me to write
a play, and direct it, and it was a flop, and I
hid in the coat-closet, she brought me a candy-cane
as you lay a peppermint on the tongue, and the worm
will come up out of the bowel to get it.
And so I was emptied of Lucifer
and filled with school glue and eros and
Amelia Earhart, saved by Mrs. Krikorian.
And who had saved Mrs. Krikorian?
When the Turks came across Armenia, who
slid her into the belly of a quilt, who
locked her in a chest, who mailed her to America?
And that one, who saved her, and that one—
who saved her, to save the one
who saved Mrs. Krikorian, who was
standing there on the sill of 6th grade, a
wide-hipped angel, smokey hair
standing up weightless all around her head?
I end up owing my soul to so many,
to the Armenian nation, one more soul someone
jammed behind a stove, drove
deep into a crack in a wall,
shoved under a bed. I would wake
up, in the morning, under my bed—not
knowing how I had got there—and lie
in the dusk, the dustballs beside my face
round and ashen, shining slightly
with the eerie comfort of what is neither good nor evil.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of philosopher Bertrand Russell, born in Trelleck, Monmouthshire, England (1872). He was one of the most widely read philosophers of the 20th century. He emerged as an important philosopher with The Principles of Mathematics (1903), which argued that the foundations of mathematics could be deduced from a few logical ideas.

Russell said, "Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth—more than ruin—more even than death. ... Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man."




SATURDAY, 19 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Appeal to the Grammarians" by Paul Violi, from Overnight. © Hanging Loose Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Appeal to the Grammarians

We, the naturally hopeful,
Need a simple sign
For the myriad ways we're capsized.
We who love precise language
Need a finer way to convey
Disappointment and perplexity.
For speechlessness and all its inflections,
For up-ended expectations,
For every time we're ambushed
By trivial or stupefying irony,
For pure incredulity, we need
The inverted exclamation point.
For the dropped smile, the limp handshake,
For whoever has just unwrapped a dumb gift
Or taken the first sip of a flat beer,
Or felt love or pond ice
Give way underfoot, we deserve it.
We need it for the air pocket, the scratch shot,
The child whose ball doesn't bounce back,
The flat tire at journey's outset,
The odyssey that ends up in Weehawken.
But mainly because I need it—here and now
As I sit outside the Caffe Reggio
Staring at my espresso and cannoli
After this middle-aged couple
Came strolling by and he suddenly
Veered and sneezed all over my table
And she said to him, "See, that's why
I don't like to eat outside."

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of American playwright Lorraine Hansberry, (books by this author) born in Chicago, Illinois (1930). She's best known for her play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), about an African-American family living on the South Side of Chicago.

It opened on Broadway in 1959, and it was a big success, going on to play for more than 500 performances over two years. It was the first Broadway play to be written by a black woman. For most members of the audience, it was the first time they had seen the life of a regular black family portrayed on stage or in film.

The play inspired a new generation of black playwrights that included August Wilson and Ntozake Shange, and it helped to spawn several black theater troupes in the 1960s and '70s. In 1961, it was made into a movie, with most of the original cast; in 1973, it was made into a Tony Award-winning musical; and in 1989, it was produced for television.


It's the birthday of director and screenwriter Nora Ephron, (books by this author) born in New York City (1941). She started out as a journalist, writing for newspapers and magazines like the New York Post and Esquire. But in 1978, she turned to screenwriting, and since she's worked on numerous movies, including Silkwood (1983), When Harry Met Sally (1989), and Sleepless in Seattle (1993).


It was on this day in 1536 that Anne Boleyn was beheaded for the charge of adultery, only a few years after she had inspired King Henry VIII to found the Church of England just so that he could marry her.

When she met Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn was an 18-year-old girl who had plenty of admirers. She was beautiful, but she was also the smartest woman most men at the time had ever met. She could debate theology and discuss literature with the finest intellectuals of the era. When Henry met her, the thing he admired most was that she could talk to him like an equal. She might have just been another of the king's mistresses, but she was an extremely ambitious young woman. And so she told the king that she couldn't give herself to him unless they were married.

So Henry decided to break with his wife of more than 20 years, and he asked the pope for an annulment of his first marriage. The pope refused, and so Henry declared himself the head of the new Church of England and granted himself an annulment in his own matrimonial suit.

Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn in 1533. It was only the second time in English history that a king had married for love. And yet, that marriage didn't last long. Within a few years, Henry had decided that he didn't like being married to an intellectual equal. He also didn't like that their first child was a girl. The one thing that might have saved Anne would have been a male child. She got pregnant for the second time in 1535, and after nine tense months of waiting, she did give birth to a son, but he was stillborn. A few months later, she was arrested on charges of adultery. Most historians believe the charges were false.

She was imprisoned in the Tower of London for a little more than two weeks, and then she was beheaded. After her death, all original portraits of her were discarded; not one is known to exist. Most of her books and correspondence were also destroyed, along with poems and songs she wrote. Her rivals spread rumors and made up stories about her, to defame her reputation in the history books, claiming that she'd been ugly and deformed, with a sixth finger on one hand and a huge hump on her neck. But despite all that, her daughter Elizabeth, the daughter that had so disappointed Henry VIII, grew up to become one of the most influential queens in British history.


It's the birthday of civil rights activist Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska (1925). After a career of activism, he was shot and killed by members of the Nation of Islam at a rally at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. He was 39 years old. Just before he died, he had dictated his life story to the writer Alex Haley, and it was published a few months after his death as The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965).




SUNDAY, 20 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Mud Season" by Alice N. Persons, from Never Say Never. © Moon Pie Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Mud Season

After a brutal Maine winter
the world dissolves
in weak sunshine and water.
Mud sucks at your shoes.
It's impossible to keep the floors
or the dogs clean.
Peeling layers of clothes like onion skins,
you emerge pale, root-like, a little dazed
by brighter light.
You haven't looked at your legs
in months
and discover an alarming new geography
of veins and flaws.
Last year you scoffed at people
who got spray-tanned
but it's starting to appeal.
Your only consolation is the company of others
who haven't been to Nevis
or Boca Raton,
a pale army
of fellow radishes,
round onions,
long-underground tubers.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 325 that the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea was called to order. The result was the establishment of the core beliefs of the Christian Church.

Christianity had had very little organization in the years following the crucifixion of Jesus. At first, it was just a branch of Judaism. But in 70 A.D., the Roman Army destroyed the city of Jerusalem in the process of crushing a Jewish uprising. The result was that Christians, along with Jews, were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. And since Christians were no longer living in Jewish communities, Christianity lost its strong ties to Judaism and became a religion with much broader appeal among gentiles.

By 100 A.D., there were fewer than 10,000 Christians in the world, and most of them had relocated to Rome. They were the subjects of persecution by Roman officials, who believed that Christianity was a dangerous cult. The persecution of Christians seemed to help gain new converts. The stories of martyrs persuaded people to join a religion that could inspire such passion. Churches banned together to give each other courage, and the bonds between Christians became stronger and stronger. By the end of the second century A.D., the number of Christians had grown to more than 200,000. By the end of the third century, those numbers had grown almost exponentially, to about six million Christians throughout the Roman Empire.

But there was still a lot of diversity of religious beliefs among Christians. Some Christians believed that they could fall into trances and speak the word of God while under the influence of the spirit. Some believed that Jesus was not a divine figure, but merely a great man. Some believed that Jesus was a supernatural being created by God, but not really God himself. And then there were the Gnostics, who believed that the God of the Old Testament was an evil God, and that Jesus had come to save humanity from that evil God. There were many gospels other than the those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There was a Gospel of Thomas, a Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and a Gospel of Judas.

Christianity might have continued to splinter into many different religions if it hadn't been for the emperor Constantine. He came to power after a stunning military victory, and he later claimed that during the battle he had received a vision from the Christian God. He'd never been baptized as a Christian himself, but once he became emperor, he announced that Christianity would become the official religion of Rome.

And if Christianity was going to be the official religion, Constantine thought that Christians needed to agree on what they believed. And so it was on this day in 325 A.D. that Constantine called together more than 250 bishops to debate what those Christian core beliefs should be.

The result was the Nicene Creed, a prayer that is still recited in many Christian churches today. The most important belief that the council established was that Jesus was not only the son of God, but that he was also of one being with God. And even though he was God, he had become a man, and as a man he had suffered, died, and was buried, only to rise again, in fulfillment of the scriptures.

Within 50 years of the Council of Nicaea, more than half of the citizens of the Roman Empire, about 34 million people, had converted to Christianity.


It's the birthday of French novelist and short-story writer Honoré de Balzac, (books by this author) born in Tours, France (1799). He devoted most of his life to writing a massive series of novels and short stories depicting all aspects of French society in the 19th century—La Comédie Humaine, or The Human Comedy.


It's the birthday of philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (books by this author) in Pentonville, London (1806). He wrote On Liberty in 1859, expressing his fear that bold and freethinking people were becoming all too rare. He wrote, "The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement."

He is also well known for his book Utilitarianism (1863), where he argued that the aim of all actions should be the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He said, "Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness."

Mill also said, "If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."




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