Poem: "Brigid Newly Arrived" by George Johnston, from The Essential George Johnston. © The Porcupine's Quill, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Brigid Newly Arrived
Dear child, dear little child,
hardly into the world,
a few weeks into our
cold you intrude your fire
for us to warm ourselves.
Look kindly on our eyes
that gaze down into yours
to quicken our low fires.
Dear wordless little girl,
forgive our words, we live
by them as you soon shall.
Choose wisely as you grow
into your wording age
among their worn meanings
some you will surely need
and we bleed to give you:
luck, charity, courage.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's Christmas Eve, the setting for many works of fiction including O. Henry's (books by this author) "Gift of the Magi," a short story about Jim and Della, the impoverished young couple, in which each one is trying to find the perfect gift for the other. They have just two prized possessions. Jim has a very valuable gold watch and Della has luxurious brown hair and she decides to sell it so she can get Jim a platinum watch chain and Jim sells his watch so that he can get her the beautiful tortoise shell combs for her hair.
"Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail."
Scrooge is the famous bitter old miser who holds Christmas in contempt but on Christmas Eve he gives Bob Cratchit Christmas day off. He dines alone in his usual tavern, and returns to his lodgings, where on the door knocker her encounters an image of the face of Marley, his old business partner. Marley warns him that he will be visited by three spirits and if he does as they tell him, then he can escape Marley's fate, which is to walk the earth bound in chains because he had no concern for mankind during his life. The ghosts come and Scrooge awakens "'I don't know what to do' he cried, 'laughing in the same breath...I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody!'" The boy stops under the window and he sends him down to the poulterer's shop to buy the enormous turkey to send to Bob Cratchit's family. Scrooge dressed himself all in his best and got out into the streets. The people were pouring forth and walking with his hands behind him Scrooge regarded everyone with a delighted smile. He looked so pleasant that three or four good humored fellows said, "Good morning, sir. A merry Christmas to you.' And Scrooge said afterwards that they were the most delightful sounds he had ever heard in all his years. He went to church and walked up and down and found that everything could yield him pleasure.
Poem: "Brothers Playing Catch on Christmas Day" by Gary Short, from 10 Moons and 13 Horses. © University of Nevada Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Brothers Playing Catch on Christmas Day
Only a little light remains.
The new football feels heavy
and our throws are awkward
like the conversation of brothers
who see each other occasionally.
After a few exchanges,
the passing and catching
feels natural and good.
Gradually, we move farther apart,
out in the field,
the space between us
filling with darkness.
He leads me,
lofting perfect spirals
into the night. My eyes
find the clean white laces of the ball.
I let fly a deep pass
to his silhouette.
The return throw
cannot be seen,
yet the ball
falls into my hands, as if
we have established a code
that only brothers know.
Literary and Historical Notes:
In Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (books by this author) writes of the March family's hardships at Christmas time: the girls are too poor to buy presents for each other and their father is off at war. Their spirits are brightened, though, when they receive a letter from their father and read it together around the fireplace. The girls find more joyfulness when they give up their Christmas breakfast to share it with a nearby family of poor immigrant children whose mother had just given birth.
In James Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, the novel's hero, Stephen Dedalus, has come home from boarding school for the winter holidays and he is excited because for the first time in his life, he is sitting at the adult table for the Christmas dinner. The joy of the occasion diminishes, however, when an argument erupts over the Irish Nationalist Leader Charles Parnell and the role of politics in the Catholic Church. Stephen's old nurse, Dante, proclaims that Parnell was a public sinner and not fit to lead a nation. Stephen's father and his friend defend Parnell and insist that it was the Catholic Church's betrayal of Parnell that caused Ireland's lost chance for independence. Stephens's mother pleads with exasperation, "For pity's sake let us have no political discussion on this day of all days in the year."
Dylan Thomas (books by this author) in his "A Child's Christmas in Wales," writes about Christmas Day. It was always snowing, "white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats...We were so still, Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in the muffling silence of the eternal snows...that we never heard Mrs. Prothero's first cry from her igloo at the bottom of the garden..."Fire!" cried Mrs. Prothero, and she beat the dinner-gong. And we ran down the garden, with the snowballs in our arms, toward the house; and smoke, indeed, was pouring out of the dining-room, and the gong was bombilating, and Mrs. Prothero was announcing ruin like a town crier in Pompeii. This was better than all the cats in Wales standing on the wall in a row...Something was burning all right; perhaps it was Mr. Prothero, who always slept there after midday dinner with a newspaper over his face. But he was standing in the middle of the room, saying, "A fine Christmas!" and smacking at the smoke with a slipper. "Call the fire brigade," cried Mrs. Prothero as she beat the gong."
Poem: "I needed to talk to my sister..." by Grace Paley, from Fidelity. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)
I needed to talk to my sister...
I needed to talk to my sister
talk to her on the telephone I mean
just as I used to every morning
in the evening too whenever the
grandchildren said a sentence that
clasped both our hearts
I called her phone rang four times
you can imagine my breath stopped then
there was a terrible telephonic noise
a voice said this number is no
longer in use how wonderful I
thought I can
call again they have not yet assigned
her number to another person despite
two years of absence due to death
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is the first day of Kwanzaa, an African-American and Pan-African cultural holiday. The name Kwanzaa comes from a Swahili phrase meaning "first fruits."
In 1933, Edwin Armstrong was granted a patent for FM radio.
It was on this day in 1825 that the Erie Canal opened. The canal cut through 363 miles of river bed, rock, and forest to connect Lake Erie to the Hudson River.
On this day in 1913, the author of The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce, (books by this author) disappeared into Mexico while traveling with the army of rebel Pancho Villa. In one of his final letters, the 71-year-old Bierce wrote to his niece, Lora, "Good-bye if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life."
It's the birthday of novelist Jean Toomer, (books by this author) born Nathan Pinchback Toomer in Washington, D.C. (1894). He is best known for his novel Cane, which sold less than 1,000 copies when it first came out in 1923, but it marked the beginning of the literary renaissance in Harlem and influenced other African-American writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Gloria Naylor. The inspiration for Cane, a mixture of prose and poetry, came from Toomer's observations while living in the rural segregated South, watching the African-American laborers bring in the sugar cane harvest.
It's the birthday of author Henry Miller (books by this author) born in New York City (1891), who wrote about poverty, sex, and squalor in his books Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring after living on the streets in Paris, where he stayed with friends and begged on the street just to get enough money for food. Miller wrote in Tropic of Cancer, "It may be that we are doomed, that there is no hope for us, any of us, but if that is so then let us set up a last agonizing, bloodcurdling howl, a screech of defiance, a war whoop! Away with lamentation! Away with elegies and dirges! Away with biographies and histories, and libraries and museums! Let the dead eat the dead. Let us living ones dance about the rim of the crater, a last expiring dance. But a dance!"
It's the birthday of poet Thomas Gray, (books by this author)born in London (1716). He wrote Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751), which is considered to be one of the greatest poems in the English language. The poem begins,
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
It's the birthday of columnist Doris Lilly, (books by this author) born in South Pasadena, California (1926). She wrote society columns for the New York Post and the New York Daily Mirror, writing mostly about celebrities. Her first book was How to Marry a Millionaire (1951), which was made into a movie starring Marilyn Monroe. Lilly is believed to be the inspiration for Holly Golighty, the character in Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's.
It is the birthday of humorist David Sedaris, (books by this author) born near Binghamton, New York (1956). He is best known for his collections of personal essays, Naked (1997) and Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000) and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004). Of using a computer, he said, "I'll admit it does make things a lot easier. When I was working on a typewriter and I whited out a line, often I would choose a word to go in the space just because it fit. Now I don't have to do that."
Poem: "Jeopardy" by Ron Padgett, from How to Be Perfect © Coffee House Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Sometimes when I phoned
my mother back in Tulsa, she would
say, "Hold on a minute, Ron, let me
turn this thing down," the thing
her TV, and she would look
around for the remote and then fumble
with its little buttons as an irritation
mounted in me and an impatience
and I felt like blurting out "You watch TV
too much and it's too loud and why
don't you go outside" because I was
unable to face my dread of her aging
and my heart made cold toward her
by loving her though not wanting to give up
my life and live near her so she
could see me every day and not
just hear me, which is why she
turned the TV down and said,
"Okay, that's better," then sometimes
launched into a detailed account
of whatever awful show she was watching.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of astronomer Johannes Kepler, born to a poor mercenary in Wurttemberg, Germany (1571), who tracked the orbital path of Mars and published his three famous laws of planetary motion which validated Copernicus's theory of a sun-centered solar system and later helped Isaac Newton discover the law of gravity. Kepler was nearly blind from a smallpox epidemic when he was three, and he developed the first eyeglass designs for nearsightedness and farsightedness. He was also the first to explain that the tides are caused by the moon, the first to propose that the sun rotates on an axis, and the first to use planetary cycles to calculate the year of the birth of Jesus Christ.
It was on this day in 1831 that Charles Darwin (books by this author) set sail from England on the HMS Beagle. Darwin's biology professor had recommended that he go on the upcoming voyage touring the Galapagos Islands and South America, but his father was against the dangerous trip. Darwin went anyway, and he explored the rainforests and was amazed by the plants and animals that he found. He returned to England, and he thought about what he had seen and developed his theory of evolution. In his book On the Origin of Species (1859), he wrote, "Probably all organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed. There is grandeur in this view of life that... from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."
It's the birthday of the father of bacteriology, Louis Pasteur, born in Dole, France (1822), whose discoveries in germs and disease are why we now wash our hands before dinner.
It's the birthday of child psychologist and author Lee Salk, (books by this author) born in New York City (1926), who is the brother of Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine. Lee Salk was visiting the Central Park Zoo one day when he noticed that the gorilla mothers carried their babies close their hearts, and he published research about the calming effect that sound of a mother's heartbeat can have on a newborn infant. He found that mothers, both left- and right-handed, instinctively cradle their children to the left side of their chests, bringing them closer to their hearts. Salk wrote How to Raise a Human Being (1969) and What Every Child Would Like His Parents to Know (1973).
It's the birthday of author Louis Bromfield, (books by this author) born in Mansfield, Ohio (1896). When he was a senior in high school, he went to live on his grandfather's farm, and he studied agriculture in college. He eventually switched to journalism, but he kept writing about farming all his life. He served in World War I, and then wrote his first novel, The Green Bay Tree (1924), about a small farming town that's slowly becoming an industrial center. The next year, Bromfield and his family took a vacation to France, wound up staying there for 13 years, and made friends with fellow ex-patriots Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein. And he wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Early Autumn (1927) and The Farm (1933).
It's the birthday of novelist Wilfrid Sheed, (books by this author) born in London, England (1930). Wilfrid Sheed wrote My Life As a Fan (1993), about his love of baseball, and In Love with Daylight: A Memoir of Recovery (1995). He once said, "The American male doesn't mature until he has exhausted all other possibilities."
Poem: "What My Father Believed" by John Guzlowski, from Lightning And Ashes. © Steel Toe Books, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
What My Father Believed
He didn't know about the Rock of Ages
or bringing in the sheaves or Jacob's ladder
or gathering at the beautiful river
that flows beneath the throne of God.
He'd never heard of the Baltimore Catechism
either, and didn't know the purpose of life
was to love and honor and serve God.
He'd been to the village church as a boy
in Poland, and knew he was Catholic
because his mother and father were buried
in a cemetery under wooden crosses.
His sister Catherine was buried there too.
The day their mother died Catherine took
to the kitchen corner where the stove sat,
and cried. She wouldn't eat or drink, just cried
until she died there, died of a broken heart.
She was three or four years old, he was five.
What he knew about the nature of God
and religion came from the sermons
the priests told at mass, and this got mixed up
with his own life. He knew living was hard,
and that even children are meant to suffer.
Sometimes, when he was drinking he'd ask,
"Didn't God send his own son here to suffer?"
My father believed we are here to lift logs
that can't be lifted, to hammer steel nails
so bent they crack when we hit them.
In the slave labor camps in Germany,
He'd seen men try the impossible and fail.
He believed life is hard, and we should
help each other. If you see someone
on a cross, his weight pulling him down
and breaking his muscles, you should try
to lift him, even if only for a minute,
even though you know lifting won't save him.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today in 1973, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's (books by this author) mammoth 260,000-word history of the Soviet prison camp system, The Gulag Archipelago, was published in Paris, France. The book is based on Solzhenitsyn's experiences in the camps for eight years, as well as 227 other inmates he interviewed. When the book was released in the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was arrested and exiled, but he was also finally able to go to Sweden and collect the Nobel Prize in literature he had been awarded in 1970.
On this day in 1895, Auguste and Louis Lumiere demonstrated the first movie projector, the cinematographe, in Paris, France. It projected its images out onto a screen, unlike Thomas Edison's kinetograph, which was a peep show that the viewer looked into, and it weighed only 20 pounds compared to Edison's half-ton invention. The first film they showed was "Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory." The movie opened with a concierge unlocking the gates, showed people walking through, and ended with the concierge closing the gates again. They made more than 2,000 films like this, without plots or characters, and thought of them just as moving pictures, and despite the thousands of people who lined up at their viewings every night, the Lumieres thought that movies would be a passing fad and Auguste went off to school to become a medical scientist, and Louis went back to working on still photographs.
Poem: "Choosing A Dog" by William Stafford, from The Way It Is. © Graywolf Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Choosing A Dog
"It's love," they say. You touch
the right one and a whole half of the universe
wakes up, a new half.
Some people never find
that half, or they neglect it or trade it
for money or success and it dies.
The faces of big dogs tell, over the years,
that size is a burden: you enjoy it for awhile
but then maintenance gets to you.
When I get old I think I'll keep, not a little
dog, but a serious dog,
for the casual, drop-in criminal
My kind of dog, unimpressed by
dress or manner, just knowing
what's really there by the smell.
Your good dogs, some things that they hear
they don't really want you to know
it's too grim or ethereal.
And sometimes when they look in the fire
they see time going on and someone alone,
but they don't say anything.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is the anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee, which took place in the army camp in South Dakota, 1890. The band of Indians had been fleeing through the cold when they were ordered into Wounded Knee. The next morning federal soldiers began confiscating their weapons, and a scuffle broke out between a soldier and an Indian warrior. The federal soldiers opened fire, killing 290 men, women, and children. The gunfire was so haphazard that the soldiers killed more than 25 of their own men in the crossfire. Even though it wasn't really a battle, the massacre at Wounded Knee is considered the final battle of the Indian Wars, which had lasted 350 years.
Today in 1916, James Joyce (books by this author) published his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, after it had been serialized by Ezra Pound in The Egoist between 1914 and 1915. The novel portrays the early years of Joyce's alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, in five sections, each in a third-person voice from early childhood memories, written in simple, childlike language, to Stephen's final decision to leave Dublin for Paris, in Latin-sprinkled stream-of-consciousness prose.
It's the birthday of journalist and novelist Robert Ruark, (books by this author) born in Wilmington, North Carolina (1915), who managed to write 4,000 articles about his travels. He said, "There was a time when I would go anywhere, eat airline food, use gin as a substitute for sleep, fight against the Mau Mau, chase elephants on horseback, slug athletes, enjoy being jailed, and wrestle with leopards, all for the love of the newspaper business."
It was on this day in 1849 that Edmund Sears' Christmas carol "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" was published in the Christian Register. Sears said that he hoped the song would promote "peace on earth, good will toward men."
It's the birthday of businessman Joyce C. Hall, born in David City, Nebraska (1891), who traveled to Kansas City with shoeboxes full of picture postcards and began selling them to dealers around the Midwest. He started manufacturing his own cards and founded the Hallmark Card Company, which is now the largest greeting-card company in the world.
Poem: "An Open Door" by William Reichard, from This Brightness. © Mid-List Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
An Open Door
Across the sanctuary of a community church
a door stands ajar; stained glass windows
allow only some of the sun to enter; filtered
yellow, red, opalescent green drench the pews.
On the altar converted to stage, a circle of
students contemplates a question of vocation.
Through the open door, only light, daytime
invading the intimate dim familiar in churches,
the hazy quality of the house of god.
When a child, I wanted to be a vampire.
Or a scientist. Or an actor. The world
seemed open to me in a way it does not
seem open now. What is your passion,
the facilitator asks and students giggle.
What drives you? I try to focus
on the question at hand, but lose myself
in the sunlight streaming in through
the open door. In this, a sanctuary,
I don't feel safe. What do you want
to be when you grow up? Not a teacher,
certainly; not a soldier; not a poet.
Who lives in the gray corners of a church
besides mice? What is that face in
the stained glass? When in college,
I wanted to be an archaeologist, wanted
to dig into the storied dirt of time and
come up with some history. In this room
I want to be a priest. It could be comforting,
living in the dark spaces of a church,
just me and the mice. What is your
vocation, the facilitator asks and
at this moment, I'd say, I am
a bringer of light; a man who stands
in a doorway flooded by sun;
I am a bird; someone who learns,
in shadow, the real shape of brightness.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Joseph Rudyard Kipling, (books by this author) born in Bombay, India (1865). Though he'd never fought in battle, his poems about military life became classics among British soldiers around the world. When he finally moved to Vermont after the war, he began to re-imagine the India of his childhood and wrote The Jungle Book (1894), about a boy raised by wolves in the jungle.
It's the birthday of novelist Douglas Coupland, (books by this author) born on a Canadian military base in Baden-Solingen, Germany (1961). He is best known for his controversial novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991), coining the term "Generation X," which was later attached to the children of the '60s and '70s.
It's the birthday of the man who introduced us to Coca-Cola, Asa Griggs Candler, born in Villa Rica, Georgia (1851). He grew up during the Civil War and wanted to be a doctor, but his family was so poor that he could only receive an elementary school education before becoming a pharmacist's apprentice. But Candler proved to be business savvy, slowly building his own drugstore empire, and in 1886 he bought sole rights to John Pemberton's original formula of Coca-Cola and formed the Coca-Cola Company in 1890. Candler understood the importance of advertising. He used calendars, billboards, and posters to keep the Coca-Cola trademark prominent in the public's mind. After selling the patent in 1919, he went on to serve as Atlanta's mayor and funded a teaching hospital for Emory University's Medical School.
It's the birthday of musician and songwriter Bo Diddley, born Ellas Bates in McComb, Mississippi (1928). His big break came in 1955, when he recorded "Uncle John" and "Who Do You Love?" for Chess Records in Chicago, and these two songs became the foundation for early rock 'n' roll. He once said, "I opened the door for a lot of people, and they just ran through and left me holding the knob."