Jan. 1, 2005

Passing Through a Small Town

by David Shumate

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Poem: "Passing Through a Small Town" by David Shumate, from High Water Mark. © University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with permission.

Passing Through a Small Town

Here the highways cross. One heads north. One heads east
and west. On the corner of the square adjacent to the
courthouse a bronze plaque marks the place where two Civil
War generals faced one another and the weaker surrendered.
A few pedestrians pass. A beauty parlor sign blinks. As I turn
to head west, I become the schoolteacher living above the
barber shop. Polishing my shoes each evening. Gazing at the
square below. In time I befriend the waitress at the café and
she winks as she pours my coffee. Soon people begin to
talk. And for good reason. I become so distracted I teach my
students that Cleopatra lost her head during the French
Revolution and that Leonardo perfected the railroad at the
height of the Renaissance. One day her former lover returns
from the army and creates a scene at the school. That evening
she confesses she cannot decide between us. But still we spend
one last night together. By the time I pass the grain elevators
on the edge of town I am myself again. The deep scars of love
already beginning to heal.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is New Year's Day. On this day in Georgia, people eat black-eyed peas and collard greens for good luck. Another popular southern dish is called Hoppin' John and is made of black-eyed peas and ham hocks. An old saying goes, "Eat peas on New Year's Day to have plenty of everything the rest of the year."

On New Year's Day in British Columbia, Canada, people of all ages do a traditional polar bear swim. They put on their bathing suits and plunge into the icy water around Vancouver. The Dutch believe that eating donuts on New Year's brings good luck because the shape of a ring symbolizes coming full circle. In Japan, people send each other New Year's postcards and make rice cakes, to eat in January. Starting the New Year with a smile is considered good luck.

The ancient Babylonians were the first to make New Year's resolutions. Early Christians believed they should reflect on mistakes and resolve to improve themselves in the New Year. The idea of making a lot of noise exactly at midnight dates back to early pagan rituals. People believed that deafening noise would drive away evil spirits who flocked to the living at the start of the new year.

In Times Square, New York City, thousands will gather to watch the New Year's ball make its one-minute descent at midnight. The tradition began in 1907 and the original ball was made of iron and wood. Today's ball weights about 1,000 pounds and is made of Waterford Crystal.

It was on this New Year's Day in 1863 that Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring freedom for all slaves in the southern states. The ruling changed the Civil War from a war against secession to a war against slavery. It also allowed the Union to enlist 200,000 African-American soldiers who volunteered after January 1st. Slavery was abolished in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Also on this day in 1803 the slave colony of Saint-Dominique declared its independence from France. The new nation called itself Haiti after the original Arawak Indian name. To this day it is the site of the only successful slave rebellion in history.

It's the birthday of English novelist E. M. Forster, born in London (1879). He's the author of A Room with a View (1908), Howard's End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924). He also wrote Maurice (1971), a book with homosexual themes published after his death. Forster wrote about the social issues of the English middle-class and believed that people needed to stay in touch with the earth and nurture their imaginations. He once said, "All men are equal-that is to say, who possess umbrellas."

It's the birthday of American writer J.D. Salinger (1919). He's a recluse best known for his novel, The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and its famous teenage hero Holden Caulfield. The book follows Caulfield on a crazy three-day ramble through the streets of Manhattan.

Salinger was born in New York City, the son of a Jewish kosher cheese importer and his Scotch-Irish wife. He was a restless student and studied at three universities but never got a degree. He published his first story in 1940 when he was twenty-one. He was a Staff Sergeant during D-Day and soldiers later praised him for bravery. Salinger returned to New York City after the war and took up writing.

Salinger said, "I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure." He published The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, but refused to help with publicity and didn't want his picture on the back cover. The novel was an overnight success and still sells over 250,000 copies each year.

Salinger wrote three more books before he stopped publishing. In the 1960s he retreated to a remote mansion in Cornish, New Hampshire and immersed himself in Zen Buddhism. Today, he's rarely seen and refuses to give interviews. In 1992, a fire broke out in his house. The New York Times reported that he and his third wife, Colleen, fled "like fleet chipmunks" from reporters.

Salinger once said, "I am a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy."

It's the birthday of American photographer Alfred Steiglitz (1864), the most influential champion of photography in the 20th century. He was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, the son of a wealthy wool merchant. His father sent him to Berlin to study engineering. One day he was out for a walk and saw a camera in a shop window. He later said, "I bought it and carried it to my room and began to fool around with it. It fascinated me, first as a passion, then as an obsession."

Steiglitz wanted the world to consider photography a real art form. In 1905 he opened a gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York City. There he displayed new photography as well as the work of a group of artists just emerging in France-Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Rodin, and others. In 1916, he showed some charcoal prints by a young painter named Georgia O'Keefe. The two began began a friendship that developed into romance. Eight years later they married. It was Steiglitz's second marriage; he was 60 and she was 37.

Steiglitz is famous for his series of 400 photographs of O'Keefe, often in the nude. He also loved to photograph cloud patterns and the every day world around him in New York City or his summer home in Lake George, New York.

One of Steiglitz's most famous prints shows immigrants on a ship's crowded steerage deck. Pablo Picasso said about the photo, "This is exactly what I have been trying to say in paint." Steiglitz said, "I saw a picture of shapes and underlying that, the feeling I had about life..."

Alfred Steiglitz was the first photographer to have his work shown by major art museums. He died on July 13, 1946, in New York City.

It's the birthday of Betsy Ross (1752), the woman who made the first American flag.

As the story goes, General George Washington brought a sketch of a flag to her Philadelphia upholstery shop. It was 1776. She suggested the five-point star on his drawing be changed to a six-point star. Then she sewed the flag in her parlor.

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




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